It’s The Water

In the several reviews that followed the release of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, it seemed as though a multitude of the reviewers concentrated solely on Diamond’s summary of the event’s that led to the end of human occupation of Easter Island. The tone was universal, as though this information was some sort of shocking revelation. More than ten years previous, while I was in grad school for archaeology, I was in a seminar about societal complexity and collapse. The opening statement was about Easter Island.

“The last person, who cut down the last tree on the island, knew exactly what they were doing.”

It was a simple testament, that humans in groups have the capability to overuse the resources they need to survive, even when individuals maybe fully cognizant of that reality.

Withing the last couple of months, I’ve noticed more than a few news items relating to shortages of a very important resource. I’m not talking about corn and rice. I’m talking about water. Have humans every really been all that good about water? Even Frontinus wrote about the growth of the Roman aqueducts as they reacted to population growth, not planning ahead for it, always fighting shortfalls in supply.

There was a chilling piece in WIRED recently. Many outlets have covered the fight that has been taking place between several southern states as of late. McNiel/Lehrer (I’ll still call it that, I’m old) had a great piece about California’s impending water problems. It seemed to paint the picture that Northern California was concerned with growing food while Southern California was concerned about keeping their golf courses green.

The one story that sent a real chill up my spine after a few minutes of consideration was recently on Frontline World. It was a short, ten minute story that covered the shrinking glaciers in the Himalayas and the simply huge numbers of people that will be affected. There are over a billion people north of the Himalayas that depend on the various rivers that flow out of the mountains in their direction. The over a billion people that live south of the mountains are in a similar situation. What happens when either India or China start diverting supplies away from the other? Humans have quite easily gone to war over various commodities that they don’t need to live such as olives, sugar and cocaine. What happens when people with nuclear weapons start running out of water?

Just because the various states don’t have nukes pointing at each other does not mean things can’t get at least a little nasty. That fight is for expensive lawyers where water rights can and easily do spend many years in litigation. Think about that the next time you water your lawn or go golfing. No human died and no culture collapsed for lack of either.